So, you’ve probably heard by now, but China has this wall and, typically Chinese, it is really big. We’re talking long enough to stretch from here to Istanbul. Not big enough to see from space, though, apparently that part is just a myth. Much like the myth about Chinese people giving up spitting on the sidewalk ever since the Olympics. Nonetheless, anyone who is bothering to read a travel article has surely heard of the Great Wall of China. Built over the course of 2,000 years, it is truly one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of mankind, even if you may prefer to not learn too many details about how it was built. Suffice to say, the Chinese weren’t particularly enamoured with providing health benefits for their workers back in those days. Or long lives.
By far the closest and most popular part of the wall to visit from Beijing is at Badaling, which we missed out on because apparently our last minute decision to try got us to the train station several hours after that day’s trains were already sold out. So we ended up just following our original plan, taking the much longer drive out to Gubeikou, a distant, little-visited and mostly original section of the wall. Original, meaning crumbling, rugged and occasionally treacherous, but with an amazing sense of history and a quiet solitude that seemed entirely more fitting. It was certainly a terrific introduction to yet another of the Seven Wonders of the World, and from there we hiked about four hours to finish at a more popular section called Jinshanling.
This hike sometimes takes you along the top of the wall, with great views and fascinating watchtowers, and sometimes along a winding path down below the wall, enjoying panoramic views at every high point along the way. Of which there were many, as well as more climbing and descending than we had expected, since many parts were either too damaged to traverse or off-limits for military purposes. The one constant, however, was a view of this awe-inspiring monstrosity winding away into the distance in both directions for as far as the eye could see. And way farther than a stone’s throw. Trust me, I tried.
Almost all visitors to the Wall base themselves in Beijing, a famous – and infamous – city in its own right, and much cleaner and more orderly than we had imagined based on its reputation. Clearly the money that was poured into infrastructure in preparation for the 2008 Olympics was well-spent. A large percentage of the city ride bikes and the subway is clean, efficient and easy to understand, even if we didn’t actually get a seat until our last ride on the very last afternoon. Definitely our favourite part of Beijing, however, were the “hutongs”. These chaotic little alleys seemed to encapsulate everything Westerners imagine when they think of China – tiny shops, crowded restaurants, industrious trades people, skulking dogs and everything in between. The hutongs are where we stayed, where we ate, where we wandered, and where we routinely got lost. Then you can also stroll through Temple of Heaven Park watching people practicing martial arts in the shade, quietly observe the monks of the Lama Temple chanting and praying and, of course, experience the immensity of both the complex and the crowds in the Forbidden City.
There are a few undeniable attractions that every self-respecting traveller needs to see at some point in their life. Whichever section you choose to visit, the Great Wall of China is definitely one of those attractions, and it is simply an added bonus to have Beijing around to enhance the experience.
1. Guards on the Great Wall apparently aren’t interested in “just another brick in the wall” jokes, let alone off-key renditions.
2. Tiananmen Square has a violent and volatile history, but you’d still be forgiven if you mistake it for just a large, paved soccer field.
3. The wall was easily the largest and most impressive thing we saw while in China, except for maybe that enormous shank of lamb we watched two guys devour in Beijing.
4. If you have time to catch a movie at Daguanlou Cinema, “the oldest movie theatre in the world”, try to find something with lots of acupuncture jokes. You’ll thank me later.
5. China blocks many social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as anything even vaguely Google-related; Including searches for which websites are blocked in China.
Dean Johnston is the author of three travel books, including the most recent Roam: The 9 Greatest Trips on Earth. He is currently in the Canary Islands recovering from his latest absurd hike across Spain, but you can read about all his travels at routinelynomadic.com.
NOTE ON IMAGES:
The Great Wall of China – new”ish” part
The Great Wall of China – older part
Our busy little hutong